On being a pregnant expat in China caught between oriental lore and western fetishes.
In January this year my husband and I had a piece of news that caused the Delhi-Beijing telephone lines to reverberate with many a shriek of joy. We were pregnant, the baby due in late September.
But, as the months wore on, I realised that even five years of living in Beijing hadn’t been enough to prepare me for the experience of being a pregnant expat in China caught squarely between oriental lore and western fetishes.
As with most things in China, the more pressing concerns with pregnancy have to do with food. From the maid at home to the sales assistant at a furniture store, my swelling belly elicited almost instant gastronomic advice.
“Bird’s Nest soup,” a friend guaranteed was the way to a healthy pregnancy and bonny baby. Not being partial to avian saliva, even that belonging to Indonesian swifts (from whom the nests are traditionally harvested), I demurred, only to be assured that snow frog’s ovaries had been known to do the trick too.
I began to eat out at western restaurants more often in the hope of avoiding having the private parts of exotic beasts thrust upon my pregnant self. But new dangers lurked.
At a small French bistro I settled down happily to order a platter of oven-roasted Mediterranean vegetables only to be told off with great authority by a 20-year-old Chinese waiter that I should be eating meat rather than vegetables in “my condition.”
A few weeks later at an up-scale Italian eatery, another waiter, this one greying around the temples, puffed up in indignation to the point of apoplexy when I mildly ask for some pepper to add to my pasta. “Pepper?” he spat out in disgust. “You (much emphasis on the word, underlined by a pointing finger towards my stomach) want pepper?” A hushed, shocked silence descended on the restaurant as the collective eyes of the other clientele bore into me: the irresponsible, pepper-guzzling object of their disdain.
My Harvard medical school-educated, American-of-Persian-descent gynaecologist was dismissive of much of this Chinese gastro-natal discourse. “Just eat healthily,” she said reassuringly and then, almost as an afterthought, “and remember to take your folic acid daily and, of course your iron supplements, not to mention your calcium boosters.”
An obedient follower of the pharmacopoeia school of pregnancy I popped my pills as required but, true to my multiple identities simultaneously attempted to follow at least some of the Chinese advice that was liberally dispensed my way. I eschewed foot massages and ate the occasional Wu Ji (small, black, chicken) soup that was highly recommended for its nutritious properties.
But it was only in my seventh month of pregnancy when my husband and I signed up for an innocuously labelled series of “child-birth preparation” classes, that I encountered a third pregnancy-related narrative strand: granola-natural.
The curly haired American midwife, who was our instructor into the mysteries of labour and beyond, belonged firmly to the “take back the birth” school — a grassroots movement in the U.S deeply suspicious of medical interventions in the birthing process. This was a school that at its bare basics could be summed up as: epidural = bad; au natural home birth with baby delivered in bath tub = good; C-section = very bad; moist-eyed husband cutting umbilical cord post-birth himself = very good.
Classes usually kicked off with a 15-minute birthing video in which we were subjected to gory close-ups of labouring moms panting and infant heads crowning. Given that for the majority of us attending, our only prior relationship to labour came from having watched Hollywood movie scenes that started with “Oh my God! My water has broken,” and then skipped to a crying infant being passed to a sweaty, smiling mother, the experience was pretty intense.
The majority of our classmates were westerners and all were first-time parents. As the birthing videos progressed in graphic mucous-drenched detail, the husbands in the room tended to gently massage their spouses’ bellies, or tenderly stroke their necks in comfort. The wives usually gripped their partners’ hands tightly, giving them the occasional wan smile.
All that is, except for one husband — mine, and one wife –— me. In our case it was me who had to massage my spouse’s back in reassuring comfort while he went as limp as a jelly fish, with fear. “There, there it’s not so bad,” I would murmur along with the other husbands.
In the event my spouse only managed to sit through one of the four movies we watched with his eyes open — the one that showed a C-section. The fact that the mother in question wasn’t screaming in pain as the baby was fished out, helped. All in all the whole procedure looked far prettier than the different kinds of vaginal labour we had been subjected to in previous classes. I could almost begin to understand the overwhelming preference for caesareans that urban Chinese women seemed to have. Some 40 percent of women in Chinese cities voluntarily opted for C-sections over natural births.
Our instructor switched off the C-section video and turned around to face the class with a strained smile. “Now, the most important thing to remember,” she said, with false cheer lacing her voice, “is that even if you find yourself forced to have a caesarean, you must not think of yourself as a failure.”
Another arena where East and West seemed as far apart as Kipling had once predicted was on the issue of pregnancy and exercise.
While our mid-wife suggested exercise — swimming, yoga, power-walking — as the solution to pregnancy’s innumerable aches and discomforts, the Chinese appeared to think the more inert a pregnant woman could manage to be, the better. My husband came to see much advantage to the typical Chinese attitude towards mothers-to-be. Throughout the August Olympic Games in Beijing, he would make a great show of propping me up, as though I would fall without his support, whenever we approached the security queues at the match venues.
This invariably galvanised dozens of eager volunteers who would herd us into a “special lane” meant for, “The elder, the little, the sick, the disabled and the pregnant,” or so the signs proclaimed. We may have saved several hours of queuing in this way but I did feel a twinge of guilt when back at childbirth preparation class the instructor bellowed, “Pregnancy is the most natural thing in the world. Don’t let anyone treat you as though you were disabled.”
A lot has changed for me over the last nine months. Perfect strangers (usually Chinese) appear to think nothing of giving my belly an affectionate clasp. Where once our friends (usually westerners) gave us chocolates and flowers for presents, these days they hand us nipple cream and butt paste (for diaper rash).
But despite these oddities, what my swollen tummy evokes in Chinese and foreign eyes alike is a warm respect; an appreciation, perhaps, of the magic involved in creating, carrying and delivering life. After all, that is the one thing that ties us all together irrespective of nationality and gives us our humanity.
7 months ago